Why do I write?

Over the last four or five years writing has come to occupy a pretty big space in my life. I write for different reasons: catharsis, reflection, to be creative, they’re probably the main ones. It’s not that I’m good at writing, I have my moments of flair for sure but I like it so much because I can express myself with as much or as little creative jazz as I like really. I want to dedicate this post to the why bit of this weird little corner of the internet that I occupy and why I like writing privately as well. My private writing hasn’t really come up yet so I’d like to talk about that a little bit as well.

I started writing as a hobby when I was 18. It definitely wasn’t for shits and giggles or to write erotic fan-fics, it was so I could document my mental illness. (no blog of mine is complete without reference to my constant companion, is it?) For real though I started writing so I could make what amounted to a diary of my experiences for therapeutic purposes. I started to write down details about my panic attacks, what I thought caused them, where they happened etc. Making regular diary posts about lying down and staring into the void for 20 minutes doesn’t sound like the sexiest introduction to writing does it? But that’s my origin story, take it or leave it. Anyway after some time of cataloguing my progress I started to find myself writing more and more about other things as well, for example I started to write entries about my general day along with the occasional empty musing about something I’d read or something that was happening in my life. At my job at the time I being the plucky youngster I was wanted to impress, so I had the idea of combining my interest in films with my new-found enjoyment of writing to make short snappy film reviews for the store. Unfortunately my time as a film critic was short-lived, I wrote three reviews and ultimately they got turned down because they were neither short nor snappy. But you can put your violins down because at this point I was writing for my own enjoyment and I was actually pretty good at it as well, I’d found a way to communicate my thoughts and feelings across in a meaningful way. I didn’t really realise it at the time but having that creative outlet laid a big cornerstone for my development going into my 20’s.

Writing has always been tied to me and my own well-being, be it directly in the form of therapeutic writing or indirectly through writing short stories or film reviews. I still have a journal that I add to infrequently; I used to bash myself for not adding to it daily but over time I realised that I don’t enjoy being a diarist because my life is comparable to a Sunday morning line dance with the occasional trip off the rails thrown in. I enjoy thrashing out ideas and in particular I enjoy taking some time to explore myself through this medium. My journal therefore has become an inconsistent, disorganised psychological profile with a smattering of entries about getting my shit together. This kind of free-form rambling is really important though because what it amounts to is your mind having an open honest conversation with itself without all the repetition and lack of meaning that comes when you just keep your thoughts locked away. When you keep your thoughts locked away it’s like you’re keeping the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in the box. You can’t make any bloody sense of the picture because you haven’t even found your corners to work from yet. Writing is what helps me to make sense of the things going on inside my mind. Writing also helps me to establish milestones in my journey. When you document something you give it a stamp of legitimacy that it couldn’t possibly have if it just remained tucked away at the back of your mind only to come out during an outpouring of emotion; that and you can look back on something you’ve written- a plan, perhaps? A reflection on where you’re at emotionally or mentally at a given point in time? When you write it’s as if you leave a print of yourself on the page, the words you throw down blend to create a picture of your soul. You really are a work of art, you know? Can you tell I’m bitter about the fact I can’t draw or paint? Writing has helped me keep track of myself and I guess a lot of my blog posts have contained this kind of self-reflective style of mine.

That leads me pretty nicely into the blog. The blog is my chance to utilise my introspective nature to do some good for those around me. I chose to blog because 1) I can use my proclivity for writing to try to do some good for those around me and 2) I’m an introvert, doing my bit from the comfort of my own room is fucking perfect. I’m just an over-sharer with access to the internet. I started the blog mostly with the intention of sharing parts of my story and to add my perspective on aspects of mental health. I didn’t really realise people would actually come to read what I have to write and the feedback that started to come my way and still finds its way to me is absolutely mind-blowing. To think me documenting my experiences with mental illness whilst sharing some ways in which I try to improve my overall wellbeing would actually impact other people is absolutely crazy to me, yet this weird little blog of mine has started to make an impact. A pretty huge milestone in this journey was being given the incredible opportunity to talk in front of a rather large number of fellow students about my experience with anxiety at University. The feedback from the talk was instantaneous, people approached me afterwards to share their own experiences and that really cemented for me the value of fostering conversation around mental health and mental illness. So I write these posts because I enjoy writing about mental health but mostly I write these posts because I hope that the people who take the time to read what I have to say can take something away from all of this.

So that, in a nutshell, is why I write. Sometimes I write with a clear purpose, sometimes I don’t. I’ve written this on the back of several recent journal entries because I’m experiencing some weird changes of late, some good and some not so good, and I thought “I could turn this into a blog post.” I really didn’t have a plan with this one, I’ve just sat down and free-written for a while. I suppose you could say this has been cathartic in its own way. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading!

-Nick

Fitness and mental illness

Whether you truly go get that bread, run once a month in an attempt to escape the shame of knowing your takeaway to cooked food ratio or fall somewhere in-between, we can all pretty much agree that exercise is generally viewed as one of the top-tier ways to improve your overall mental wellbeing. “You should exercise more” is up there with the most irritating things to say to someone with a mental illness. Ironically enough I ended up doing just that and garnered some great results but it was on my terms that I started so fuck you, Deborah. I like fitness and- surprise, surprise- I have a mental illness. I’ve always been aware of it but until now I’ve never actually thoroughly addressed how my mental illness has affected and continues to affect my fitness journey. I’d like to subject you all to a post about the weird relationship between fitness and mental illness, how an illness can alter the way a person lives a fit lifestyle, and some tips based on my own experiences of how to build an exercise routine and diet plan whilst suffering with a mental illness. I should say this post has illnesses like anxiety, panic and depression in-mind.

I’ll open up with a bit of backstory about my 3-year attempt to achieve a level of fitness where I can run for the bus and not have an asthma attack. I’ve tried to lead an active lifestyle for some time, having played Rugby in my teens to being a member of my Sixth Form gym to enjoying a career in Volleyball spanning a magnificent one game. I stopped any sort of heart-raising activity when I moved to University. All jokes aside I was still struggling quite a lot with panic at the time and moving to a different part of the country with total strangers didn’t exactly calm the storm. I got back into it in my 2nd year when a good friend suggested I join him for a boxing session at my University boxing club and it all began there. Since then you could say I’ve moved at a good pace; I’ve lost weight, I can run for a bus and not die, (although I do always have my inhaler, better safe than sorry) I’ve competed in a boxing match, completed Tough Mudder and I’ve managed to gain some sort of muscle mass. Hooray I’m a gym bro now. The only thing: this journey has definitely not been a steady and consistent climb up the fitness tree, not one bit. When I started exercising properly again I believed it would provide an escape from my illness; I thought of it as an important step in my recovery for sure but only because exercising proved my panic wrong. Reality hit me pretty quickly when I experienced my first panic attack during exercise, it was terrifying! I’d thrown up a safety barrier and then my inconsiderate mental illness smashed it down. The truth is I’ve experienced anxiety and panic during a lot of workouts and most recently I had to take a breather at a boxing session because I was that exhausted I panicked at the thought of passing out. I experience some kind of anxiety every time I go to the gym; I think most of us do, really. There are certainly times when my anxiety directly impedes a workout: I’ve been too anxious to approach someone to ask how many sets they have left, whether I could jump in etc and instead adapted my workout to move around the issue. This has made me think two things: that the way I lead a fit lifestyle is certainly different to what we might think of “the norm” (if there is a norm?) and, unfortunately, that I don’t belong in a gym. These thoughts come and go, they aren’t a constant. However they’ve got me thinking about mental illness and fitness and that’s why I’m here. Anyway, enough about me.

A gym or any kind of space in which exercise takes place can understandably feel like an uncomfortable, triggering or even outright hostile environment for someone with a mental illness or even someone who experiences say social anxiety or low self-esteem. We mentally-ill folk certainly don’t hold the monopoly on unfortunate life experiences. However to stay with the spirit of the post, the prospect of being in a triggering space can cause a strong aversion to ever being inside it. So it’s easy to feel like you simply don’t belong in a gym or a pool or a studio or even a pavement and that exercise isn’t yours to enjoy. It’s as if your illness is disallowing you from fitness. Now I understand this isn’t the case for everyone with a mental illness, but I’m sure there are plenty have come to accept that exercise and them just aren’t compatible.

Another complicating issue is that people experience different degrees of severity with their illnesses over time. Here I’m speaking to those who suffer from inconsistency right the way to total derailment. We might start making the first steps or even gain some pretty good traction but then a bad episode might begin or a bad night could throw your plan off-track. The point here is that an illness can create complications that might not exist for someone who doesn’t have an illness. We usually tend to imagine a good fit lifestyle consistent of 4-6 days of consistent exercise per-week, an average of 8-hours’ sleep per night, (imagine) and a consistently healthy diet that might relax a little at the weekend. To go back to myself briefly, I can’t remember the last time I hit 5 consistent days of exercise. I plan my weeks out, sure, but I’m just one bad night away from sleeping through my alarm so I have enough sleep just to survive my day at work. Mental illnesses make these kinds of roadblocks more present and these can be seriously disheartening. This peak and trough experience of mine has frequently made me compare myself to people who do achieve remarkable consistency and this has led me to think that I’m just not cut out for a fit lifestyle.

Well, I’d like to share a few tips and even a bit of positivity after all that doom and gloom. Firstly and most importantly, to someone considering a more active lifestyle please remember: you are in this for the long run! Plan with this knowledge in-mind. Thinking long-term gives you room to find a suitable environment or acclimatise to one that previously felt uncomfortable and importantly it gives you room to make mistakes. Making disgusting meals, working out at the wrong time etc will happen and unless you understand that your journey into fitness is a lifelong one these kinds of mishaps could easily cause derailment. I should stress as well the importance of taking time to find an environment that you feel comfortable in. I advise doing prior research and to speak to anyone you may know to ask them what that particular place is like. Getting to a gym need not be a huge plunge into the unknown.

As for setting goals, one thing I know a fair few people rely on is the concept of SMART goals. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time) I myself stand by this method of setting goals however one thing I would say is to be careful with the Time element. This is where we have to be a little honest with ourselves and think “given my condition, should I allow a little more time to accommodate any negative fluctuations in my mental health?” Setting a time-frame for a specific goal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in-fact it can add some important focus. It’s just important to be open and honest with yourself about what roadblocks you might encounter along the way and to ensure that they don’t derail you when or if they come about.

Building on from this, don’t be too harsh on yourself for missing a day, or two, or more. Take time, reflect on what caused you to miss these sessions. A huge part of self-care is looking at your actions and seeing them as they are, this includes being brutally honest but does not mean unnecessarily chastising yourself. At the end of the day we’re in this for the long run.

It may sound odd but remember to think about why you’re about to do this workout. Is the motivation coming from a healthy place? There have been times where I’ve gone to the gym with a piece from social media stuck in the back of my mind. What’s driven me on many an occasion is bubbling self-hatred that when left unchecked has caused me to spiral. Your reason for exercising should always come from a good place. 

There’s some bits of advice that I’ve been able to conjure-up based on my own experiences of trying to be fit whilst battling a mental illness. I’ll just finish on this: it isn’t impossible to reconcile mental illness and fitness. You absolutely are not disallowed from enjoying an active lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with having to miss a session due to poor mental health, and you absolutely can live a fit lifestyle that works within your means. Having a mental illness may place restrictions on how you live your life, but with a lot of flexible planning and some close care and reflection you can come to build your own fitness journey.

Old symptoms coming back? Don’t panic.

“Why am I feeling things that I haven’t felt in months and in some cases over a year?”

I finished therapy in July 2015, moved to University in September of that year, endured some struggles with my panic and anxiety but come the end of my time as a student in July 2018 I felt like I had my illness pretty under-control bar the occasional blip. Recently, however, I’ve been finding myself asking that question more and more. I’ve had more sleepless nights in the last month than I have this previous year and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me feel uncomfortable (and tired, very tired). Every time I feel my old symptoms rushing back- the intense adrenaline rushes across my chest, heart palpitations, shaking- I feel this sense of dread that at times has become overwhelming. It’s as if you’re being dragged back into darker days and most worryingly, there isn’t a great deal you can do about it. That’s what my mind tells me when I’m probably at my most vulnerable and when I’m most susceptible to believing these pernicious thoughts. There’s nothing really new to these developments so to speak and that makes me wonder why they’ve been so pervasive. This elusive element gives every moment of panic some extra intensity because you really feel like there’s nothing you can do; therapy helped you overcome them once but now it’s as if old tactics don’t hold the same sway they once did. A key part of my therapy was to establish two theories: Theory A and Theory B. Theory A suggested that there was in-fact something wrong with my heart and these symptoms represent a wider health condition. Theory B on the other hand countered by suggesting that these symptoms are in-fact not dangerous at all. They’re not symptoms of a health condition but rather symptoms of a panic attack or feelings of panic. I’ve used this framework consistently and over time I’ve noticed that those intense moments of panic have calmed down.

These old tactics haven’t lost their power, rather I’ve become complacent in making them powerful for my life as it currently is. This last month has taught me that alongside the slumps you experience in recovery there’s also the chance that you yourself will adjust to easier times and get complacent. I can recall the worst parts of my illness; at those points I was convinced I was dead, my life was meaningless and in a moment spent staring at the ceiling I was gone having done nothing good for the world. Now that I believe I’m in with a chance of seeing grey hairs on my head I’ve neglected some of the practices that helped me to achieve a calmer state of mind. Not only this, I neglected practices that sat nicely alongside the things I’d learned in therapy to help me to “ride the wave” of panic, so to speak.

I have a love/hate relationship with my own process of recovery and I think that a lot of that comes down to the way I understand my own recovery. I started to imagine it as a set of routinised practices that I had to follow strictly if I were to beat my illness. Sure, healthy routines are a key part of recovery but what if you force your entire life into becoming habitual? The thing with tying yourself to routines all the time is that when you inevitably get frustrated with them and stop doing them you’re left in a void where no activity feels valuable because you assigned all that value away. Suddenly the things you once felt were crucial to you feel meaningless, and that is a weird thing to feel. So what do you do? Well, you’re not panicking any more and you’re not deriving so much enjoyment from some habits anymore so why not just leave them. You don’t cut them out per-se because you’ve not made that conscious choice but they do lose their important place in your mind.

Recovery is painful but I never expected it to be a pain the arse, too. I thought that if I did things one way that I would be okay. The ingredient that I forgot was honest self-reflection. Let’s be honest, when we’re doing pretty well it’s easy to ignore what it is we might be doing wrong, isn’t it? The truth is that during the good times you might be dancing all over the foundations you’ve built. When you do eventually fall down, what do you have to build yourself back up? Recovery isn’t a simple process, there isn’t one set plan and there definitely isn’t a clear victory point. By choosing to not reflect on how I’ve been doing, I didn’t realise that things I’d once relied-on weren’t working as they should with my life being in the place that it is right now. Not just that, I didn’t want to confront the strange decline in my once-prevalent habits because I was scared of what that might reveal about me. What I’ve learned is that recovery demands you to be attentive to the current of your own thoughts and overall mental health. It demands close care of yourself, so as to not lose track of yourself when times are good. This isn’t to say that when we’re recovering from a mental illness we can’t enjoy the times when our illnesses are less present, rather that we must remember to pay close attention to ourselves and learn from what is working and what isn’t working. This has been my first major experience with really falling off-track and whilst it’s been a painful and confusing process, it has no doubt presented me with opportunities to learn more about myself and to grow from them.


Creed 2: A review

 

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The Klitschko brothers have nothing on this death-stare

There’s a formula for gripping people in a fight film; it isn’t quite the cathartic release that comes as the villain gets his 7th shade of shit knocked out of him, although that common crescendo never loses its sweet twang of satisfaction. No, the formula i’m talking about is what makes those crescendos all the more powerful. At its core, the formula I’m talking about is essentially a question: why do we fight? This question often guides the journeys taken by our protagonists, and is an effective way of making the vast majority of us relate to the struggles faced by our characters. It is so simple, yet its simplicity is what makes it so effective because it resonates with anyone fighting a battle of their own. We share in the story of our protagonists and relate our own journeys and motivations to theirs; what makes these stories all the more powerful, especially in the case of the Rocky and Creed franchises is that in the end our protagonists always overcome adversity. Given that films are one of our favourite forms of escapism it makes a lot of sense for us to get hyped up to face our own battles as we watch a fictional character overcome theirs. Creed II handles that fundamental question of why we fight brilliantly and the result is a film that is raw, emotionally-resonant and provides one of the best closures to a franchise that I’ve ever seen.

Creed II, just like Creed, revolves around family and it does this in a refreshing way. At a supposed high point in his career, Adonis hasn’t found his apex. Despite winning a world title there’s still something that just isn’t quite there. He has an amazing partner in Bianca, a father-figure in Rocky, and a high level of sporting success. What he doesn’t have is a remedy for the death of his father, Apollo. This was the main motivator for what happened in Creed and rightly-so it continues into Creed II. At this point nothing really seems refreshing, does it? We’ve had countless stories revolve around loss of family. This is where Ivan and Viktor Drago come in, and they are the key ingredient in making this otherwise familiar tale somehow feel new. Ivan Drago in this film is a real person! He’s a lot more than the grumbling man-mountain we saw in Rocky IV. The Ivan Drago we have in this film was broken by the events of Rocky IV. Following his defeat to Rocky, he was effectively ostracised from his family, his entire country and went from hero to zero overnight. In order to piece back together his tarnished legacy he decides to forge his son into a relentless killing machine (we won’t go into the clear weight-class difference between the two fighters, it’s a Creed film). This move completely makes-sense, even looking at the continuity from Rocky IV. Drago and Rocky symbolised the USSR and the USA respectively and his loss could easily be seen as a victory of America over Russia, Capitalism over Communism, McDonalds over Gulags. Drago fell from the highest of heights to the lowest depths, and out of those depths came the monstrosity that is his son. Viktor Drago was forged through pain and was coerced into believing this his manifest destiny is to avenge his fathers historic loss and restore honor to his family. The return of Ivan Drago along with his son is purposeful and this adds to its emotional resonance just as much as Dolph Lundgrens superb acting. This along with the way these two clans coalesce around regret, revenge and legacy is what makes this film feel so now. I dare say that what elevates this film beyond being just simply good is the way in which the Drago’s catalyse a journey which shows us how powerful a motivation family can be.

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If there ever was a case for the importance of on-screen chemistry, it’s these two.

Creed built into Creed II and culminated in a film that feels raw. The films answers to the question “why do we fight?” comes from emotions and relationships that have been around since Rocky IV. Creed II especially takes an otherwise forgettable character in Ivan Drago and gives his story such gravity that his abusive relationship with his son gives this film the feiry intensity it clearly aimed-for. As a fan of the Rocky and Creed franchises the thing I enjoyed most about this film was the closure it provides our characters and us the audience with. The coalescence around family, legacy, regret and revenge doesn’t end in a cataclysmic explosion but with a clear eye to better horizons for all of our characters. Out of Viktor’s tantilising defeat at the films crescendo comes the realisation from Ivan Drago that he loves his son. His love for his son is more powerful than his need to re-establish his name and by throwing in the towel we literally see him cutting himself away from his demons and giving his son what he really needs: a loving father who cares for the welfare of his son. The end of the film sees the father-son duo out running once again, this time side-by-side. Viktor looks over to his father and looks back ahead, silently embracing that which he has always craved yet cannot acknowledge. Adonis also is freed from his personal demons by avenging the death of his father. I personally felt more attached to the relationship between Ivan and Viktor Drago, but it was wonderful to see Adonis finally get his closure and to enjoy his relationship with Bianca. What really came as a pleasant surprise was seeing Rocky return to his son. I must admit, this end to Rocky really made me wonder what made them give him cancer in the first-place but I digress. Earlier in the film Rocky reminisces about his son, knowingly absent in Creed and without any sort of explanation. Creed II addresses the absence of Rocky’s son somewhat- he’s an adult living his own life and Rocky, the old-fashioned Philadelphian, doesn’t want to intrude on his son’s modern life. Although their coming together was perhaps a bit rushed, I’m not willing to say that this exit for Rocky is inadequate or disrespectful. Rocky is no longer the main character in this show and to devote more screen-time to his character arc would detract from the highly-focused plot of the film. We know from earlier films that almost every significant person in Rocky’s life has passed-away. For me it was enough to finally see the old titan find some peace and tranquility in the simplicity of stepping into his son’s home. I think that’s the kind of low key bow-out Rocky himself would have asked for.

Creed II was explosive yet emotional, powerful yet vulnerable. The Creed saga has given us characters with great depth and has somehow been able to utilise the all-too-familiar Rocky formula to give us a new and captivating spin on the motivations for enduring great struggles. The triumph of our characters over their struggles is one of my favourite closures to a film series. On a personal level I felt the same satisfaction and completeness as when I first watched Return of the Jedi and got to watch through teary eyes as Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan all watched over our beloved Luke. It was wonderful to see our characters get their closure and I only now hope that the story truly ends there.

What we can learn from introverts

Something I hear a lot is “you’re very happy/outgoing/energetic”… you catch my drift. A lot of people have probably thought of me as quite extroverted as a result of how I can present myself in social situations, but the truth is I’m actually an introvert. I despise small talk, I usually last around an hour at social gatherings before the social battery runs dry etc. I crave solitude. To quote the wonderful Susan Cain, to whom I owe a great debt for helping me to come to terms with certain facts about myself, “solitude can be like the air we breathe”.

Now, the way I am in conversations isn’t an act most of the time. Sometimes nerves do compel me to seem more excitable than I actually am, but for the most part I do derive a lot of enjoyment from a good conversation and my gregariousness is genuine. However I also need my alone time, and I need a lot of it to recharge my batteries. As a matter of fact, I’m at my best in most respects when I’m alone. I like to work alone in amongst the low hum of conversations going on around me. I like to go to the gym alone where I can get lost in my music and find my “zone”. I like to just be alone because it gives me space to get lost in my head, and that’s something I love doing. I can’t speak for all introverts, but for me I am usually at my best in environments that aren’t exuming stimuli from all directions.

Enough about me, let’s get more to the point. Susan Cain believes we live in a very extroverted society and I’m inclined to agree. I don’t really think there’s much room for debate here. In our education system we’re becoming increasingly focused on group activites with the idea being that better ideas come about through collaborative thinking. I’ve had many conversations with fellow students who don’t necessarily dislike their peers but rather just believe that they work best alone and I think we need to pay attention to these concerns. I’m reading that workplaces are placing more focus on candidates being lively and outgoing for roles that don’t require you to be a bubbly persona 24/7. An emergent belief now is that the best ideas come from collaborative projects, or what Susan Cain calls the “big groupthink”. What I’m trying to say here is that the idea of leading an extroverted life is being increasingly pushed onto people from an early age when actually there’s a lot we can learn from introverts and the kind of lives they tend to lead.

Introverts are more likely to be reflective, to stand on the periphery of social interactions and weigh-up what’s going on before joining-in. Introverts are more likely to think before they speak, and as leaders they tend to focus more on delegation rather than leading the way themselves. Most importantly, introverts are very good at quietening things down and lowering the stress of their immediate environments. I realise I’m generalising here and of course not all introverts will be like this and not all extroverts will be brash in the way I’ve described above, but there’s enough research to suggest we can speak in some general terms about how introverts and extroverts are. What I take from introverts is that there’s a lot of value in solitude and in quietning yourself down and allowing yourself to ease away from the constant stimuli that society throws our way these days. Taking some time to read that book you’ve been meaning to read, to have a long bath, to even remove yourself from an immediate social situation so you can just take a minute to breathe can really be helpful. My alone time not only helps me work at my best but helps me to re-focus, remind myself of my goals, think about how I’ve behaved lately and if anything I’ve been doing is off, and allows me to simply be in the moment sometimes. On the other side of things, being solitary shouldn’t be discouraged. In the average classroom there will be a fairly even mix of introverts and extroverts and it isn’t conducive to a healthy education to force introverted kids into groupwork where they’re likely to be pushed-out by the louder, more extroverted kids in the group. In our workplaces, we shouldn’t focus so heavily on group-based sessions when there’s workers present who are far more adept at producing excellent ideas when they’re tucked away in the intellectually-fertile confines of their own work-spaces. Introverts can teach us that nuance is a great thing. Schools can be better geared-up to maximise engagement from both introverts and extroverts, and workplaces can be structured in such a way where each worker is allocated their ideal working environment. Of course much of this is highly-demanding and I’m well-aware of this. The key thing to think about here is that people work and operate best at different levels of stimuation, and we’d be wise to unlock the potential of our introverts. Just look at the creator of the Macintosh, the intellectual Father of Natural Selection, and the Mother of the African-American civil rights movement.

 

-Nick

Getting back into the swing of things

It’s been a fair while since my last post. My last term at University was hectic to say the least. Once exams had ended it was onto the celebrations and I guess you could say that writing just fell to the back of the line and it’s been there for the last couple of months. Anyway I’ve decided to get back into the habit of writing. I saw a little philosophy bite not long ago that said once you write something down that’s the beginning of you facing or coming to terms with whatever it is that you have written down. That’s the power of writing- you hammer out your thoughts and feelings onto paper or a blog or whatever and there it is right in front of you, you’re literally facing it. By not writing I’ve not properly laid-out the problems that currently confront me, so here we go.

Coming back home to Oldham has been really weird and quite emotional. To begin with I had to leave everything I’d come to love in York: my housemates, my friends, the pubs, the gym, and the takeaways. I had a lot of creature comforts in York that I really took for granted and now that they’re not there anymore it’s like I’ve been stripped of my map and kicked out into the unfamiliar again. I miss the life I had in York, but over time I’ll come to terms with the pain of turning away from the life I’d built for myself there. The most pressing problem that confronts me right now is having the motivation to do something. I imagine quite a few students feel the same way- you come home and once you’ve settled back-in you realise there’s things to do bar eat the contents of the fridge and catch up on trash tv. I’ve found myself knowing in my head there’s things to do, ranging from little things like sorting out my gp back home all the way upto *sigh* finding a job. I haven’t exactly done nothing, like I’ve had some exciting progress on the job front, but I’ve struggled to amass the motivation to do much else. I guess this is down to my days being the exact same: wake up, shower, eat, go to the gym, come home, play video games, watch tv, sleep. There are two issues here: I struggle to even find the motivation to go to the gym most days, and with doing the same stuff every day it’s made me quite lethargic and demotivated.

I think this comes down to the sudden change of pace and environment. At Uni there was always something to be done, somewhere to be and something to think about… usually a deadline. Now that I’m at home there aren’t any important set deadlines, so it’s easy to just fall back and get used to not doing much at all. At the same time, there are conversations at Uni that I just can’t have at home. There’s a whole lifestyle that in many ways has suddenly just vanished. I think that the change of lifestyle has had some impact on my pretty poor levels of motivation at home.

However there is light at the end of this tunnel! The last few days have been quite successful because I’ve established more of a routine. I’ve started to get back into the swing of things, one might say. (roll credits) I’m starting to listen to myself when I say something should be done today and ideally at this or that time. I think University has instilled in me this need to do things. So something I will say to any students struggling to get anything done at home: just do one job you know you’ve been meaning to do. Just do the one. If you can, do another and see where you go from there. The main thing i’d say is just getting one thing done with your day and then going from there. Summer can be a big old boring block of time for students, but there are ways to use that regimented programming that’s been hardwired into your brain by the incessant call of deadlines.

 

-Nick

Recovery

Recovery. When someone says: “I am recovering from X”, there’s a whole lot included in that. Let’s say you’re recovering from the Flu. Recovery can be whatever it means to each person: staying in bed, or trying to stay active once the worst passes; eating healthily, or resorting to guilty pleasures because you can get away with it when you’re ill. This could be across one week, two weeks, maybe longer if you’re pretty unlucky. Recovery is as long or short as it needs to be. The point is, you’re going from A to B, with A being some kind of bad place and B being a state where you don’t have what led you to A. Recovery is a pretty tricky thing, and I’m here to chat about recovery from mental illness for a bit.

I’ve never actually said that I’m in recovery to anyone before, but that’s what I’m doing. To say I’m “recovering from a panic disorder” means a lot more than seeking-out therapy, from practicing self-help techniques like meditation, and stuff like that. I’ve never actually told anyone I’m recovering from a mental illness, because since I’ve had it I’ve never seen myself without it. I kind of just accepted that certain aspects of my mental illness would be a constant, because I actually thought they maybe there would be something holistic about “having a relationship with my mental illness” or something. It’s only now that I’m starting to think differently. Now I’m starting to think, well, if I’m in-recovery, doesn’t that mean I should be working towards not having a mental illness at all, or perhaps more realistically, shouldn’t I be working towards controlling it so that it doesn’t affect my life in sizeable ways?  That’s pretty significant in some ways, because panic and anxiety shape a lot of the ways that I do things now, and they’ve both had impacts on my relationships with my friends and family.

This has all made me come to realise that recovery is a lot more complicated than I first thought. Getting from A to B an uphill climb, with a lot of falls, scrapes, and breakthroughs along the way. It’s not just a case of winning one battle. I’ve long accepted that my disorder is a part of me, so in that sense I’ve been winning for a long time. On the other hand, my strong inclination to panic informs a lot of my behaviours, because I’m still trying to avoid what is likely to trigger panic. My anxiety, more pervasively, still hangs over me, and tries to bend me towards it’s addictive thoughts. It constantly tries to set me up to fail, whispering in my ear that the worst possible outcome is going to happen, and it’s all my fault. Accepting that that is a reality doesn’t sound much like recovery, does it?

Recovery is a complicated thing, because the point at which you can say you’ve recovered from a mental illness changes all the time. You might overcome a significant challenge, but then your life can take a change, and put you in the direction of a new challenge. To me, recovery is a bloody long adventure. It’s not a nice one, filled with long walks and aesthetically-pleasing views. It’s being up all-night being 100% convinced something new is wrong in your body, and it will kill you. It’s taking someone very important to you, turning absolutely nothing into a cataclysmic problem, and losing them. It’s constantly re-shaping your identity, so that one day you want to suit yourself, and another day you want to suit other people. One day, you want to be a lone-wolf. Other days, you’re loving and you crave intimacy. These don’t always come at the same time. Sometimes you feel like you’ve cracked-it; you’ve had a week with no bad nights and that must mean something, right? This time, you’re evaluating your relationships realistically and seeing your past mistakes. For every victory you enjoy, though, there’s always a defeat potentially lurking around the corner. It’s hard to say whether recovery from mental illness is really possible. I know people who have done, and people who haven’t. For some of those that haven’t, their illness has become a part of who they are, and the way they engage with their illness has helped shape them into the beautiful people they are. I don’t know if I ever will recover, but so-far it’s been a hell of a journey. I want to have riddance of my mental illness, but maybe I should be prepared for it to never really disappear. At this time, I have to say I really don’t know any of the answers to the questions I’m asking. All I know now is that recovery is a lot more complicated than just moving from A to B.

-Nick

The value of letting-go

I deliberately made the title of this one a bit vague, because by letting-go, I mean it in a couple of different ways.

Life is constantly moving at 100mph. You’re up, you’re working, you’re socialising, you’re working again, you’re eating, you’re on social media, you’re doing your hobby, you sleep. For a lot of us, this is just how it is and it’s manageable. Some people like it, and others thrive on it and can’t handle slowing-down. One thing that worries me though, is going to sleep at 22 and waking up at 45, having not enjoyed the ups and embraced and learned from the downs. Life moves so very quickly when you’re busy all the time, especially when you’re always busy in your head. That’s partly what I mean when I say letting-go. It’s okay to vacate the world, sit in the clouds for a bit and enjoy a birds-eye view on your own life for a little while. It’s okay to sit and listen to some music, or do literally nothing at all and just enjoy the quiet. Letting-go of all your responsibilities and your stresses gives you that valuable time in your own head where you listen to the current of your thoughts. Not to take a negative twist, but sometimes it can be quite valuable for tuning-into more unhealthy, maybe even ominous thoughts. It can equally be a time for you to enjoy being with yourself, and to hear your mind speak. Some people I know have told me they aren’t comfortable being alone, because they can’t handle being in their own company. A key part of being healthy in my view is to be able to enjoy your own company. I think that’s one of the main cornerstones of loving and appreciating yourself, is having the ability to have a relationship with yourself.

Anyone who knows me well-enough knows my phone goes on ‘do not disturb’ at half-past nine every night (and now the rest of you know), and the general rule is I either reply very slowly or I don’t at all. This has worked to varying degrees over time, but in my head the time after half-past nine is my time. Again, I’ve used my time for good things and I’ve used it for not so good things, but the key thing is that that time is allocated to be my own, and I can slow it down as much as I want, like I am now. Whilst typing this out, I’m having a conversation with myself, and already my daily anxieties have gone away.

People can do this differently. Some people’s ‘me time’ might not be quiet at all, but it works for them. The key thing is that it’s okay to let go of your commitments, your responsibilities, and your stresses. It’s like carrying heavy shopping bags- it’s okay to put them down for a bit whilst you gather your strength again. You can, with time and patience, learn to put all these stresses down for a bit.

 

 

The next bit is for people who panic a lot.

I panic a lot. My formal diagnosis was a bit weird. I was diagnosed with panic disorder, but I had elements of someone with an anxiety disorder. Anyway, panic disorder does this great thing where it creates the initial feeling of panic for no reason at all; or maybe there is a reason deep-down, but it’s not necessarily pressing you at that time. Panic comes, the physical symptoms come, the panic intensifies, the symptoms intensify: bosh, you’re having a panic attack. You’re in what we call a ‘vicious cycle’. The key is kind-of identifying that initial feeling of panic, and rather than fighting it, you try and see it as something that will just pass, like a cloud. I love my sky analogies.

Anyone can have a panic attack. Having a panic/anxiety disorder of some sort doesn’t grant you entry to a special panic club where we all sit in complete catatonic silence staring at the ceiling. Anyone can have a panic attack, and anyone can just panic. I bet you can recall a time where you’ve panicked. Unfortunately, some of you will be able to recall a time where you had a panic attack; I just hope it wasn’t recently. Panic can come out of nowhere: a deadline you’ve got could start freaking you out, or you could be worrying about something you said 4 months ago to your partner, it could be anything.

I spoiled it a bit earlier, but if you feel panic coming-on, or you’re actually having a panic attack, brought on by anything whatsoever, please remember this: IT WILL PASS. I promise you you aren’t going insane, I promise you you aren’t going to die, and I promise you that the strange feelings you’re having at this very moment aren’t a symptom of some underlying condition. Panic does strange bloody things to your body, and none of it is harmful. You can read all this in different wording on the NHS website for panic attacks. What I want to tell you is that if you do feel panic, remember it will pass; let it go. Just like any thought, panic can come and go.

I just wanted to write this because I’ve been having some difficulty letting-go lately. Sometimes things get a bit overwhelming, and although you don’t see it at the time, you come to realise that what you need sometimes is to drop everything for a bit and go back to basics.

-Nick

 

Working within your means

We all go through hard times. It feels unfair when you’re subjected to some kind of suffering; it’s easy to lament your circumstances, and to try to reject your hardship with all your strength. Sometimes, though, you have to shift things around a bit.

At the moment I’m pretty anxious. I have to juggle my degree, my job, boxing, the gym, and of-course, myself. Sometimes, handling all the stress does start to feel overwhelming, but I take a lot of pride in how much stuff I do. When I reflect, it makes me feel pretty powerful knowing that I’m doing all these things despite having a mental illness that could easily spiral if I didn’t constantly chop away at its roots. I like to draw a lot of pride from those reminders of how well I’m doing, but that means I’m less likely to juggle things around when I do eventually start to feel the strain of it all. The strain, and the stress it creates, starts to feed into my anxious thoughts, and gives them new strength that starts to eat away at me. My thoughts about my heart have started to come back with new force recently, and it kept me up late last night with deep worry and anxiety. I’m writing this now as a reminder to myself that sometimes you have to juggle things around a bit; slow down in some areas, whilst making-sure that I’m still going forward, both in a productive way and in my own mental health.

The problem with seeing being busy as a strategy to battle anxious thoughts is that you tend to forget to actually listen to the current of your thoughts. So, you know, when your strategy starts to wear you down, you should probably listen to your mind asking you to please calm your shit. I just find it immensely-difficult to stop, because I have all these ideas about where I want to go, and what kind of person I want to be. I don’t want to tone-down training, because I want to work towards a better physique and I want to carry-on fighting. I can’t stop working, because I need the money, and whilst I haven’t exactly been a model student this year, I do still see my degree as a full-time committment. The point is, there’s only so much time in each day, and as much as it pains me, I’m not superhuman. I can’t do all these things whilst having solid mental health, and I have to accept that that’s okay. What I want of myself, that can come in good time. What’s causing me so much anxiety at the moment is that I’m wanting to study like a Historian, train like AJ, and… well I’m okay with doing the bare minimum at work (sorry about that). I think the best way to summarise it is I tend to burn the candle at both ends, because I want to be proud of myself, but in my mind I can only be proud of myself when I’m going 100% in everything. When I don’t do that, I get stressed, I get moody, I doubt myself, and before I know it I’ve lost my calm headspace and I’m getting sucked-up into a battle with myself that I’ve pretty-much already set up to be a loss, because I just can’t work like a pack-mule all the time. I need that down-time so I can have the good mental health to maintain a good work-rate. My capacity to work just might not be at the level of AJ, and it’s a tough thing to accept, but I’m going to have-to!

Pay attention to how much you’re actually doing. Some people can work more than others, but even they have a limit. There comes a point where you need a break, both phsyically and mentally. You can’t always be thinking about how hard you’re going to work, because by doing so you’re setting yourself up for a loss. It’s much much better (and of course tricky) to work towards figuring out what your best working capacity is, and set small, realistic goals going towards what it is you want overall. As tricky as it is, we all have constraints on how much we can do, and to be at your best you have to know your limits.

-Nick

Ways to look after your mental health at university

  1. Go at your own paceIn this age of social media, we’re interconnected like never before. Individuality has flourished on the internet, and everyone can have an audience. We see great variety in the ways that people live their lives, and how they express this on social media. As great as this can be for individuals, it does also open up some problems. It’s easy to see an active user who likes to show themselves at their prime at all times. Their pictures could be carefully manufactured to remove imperfections, and their updates could show the success of their active working pattern. It’s easy to see these things and immediately feel like you’re doing something wrong. You respond by asking questions of yourself as if this person has the key to unlocking a happy, balanced and productive life for all. This is something you need to avoid in-general, but what I will say for your time at University is that if you peg your own standards to those of other people, you’re not focussing on honing those traits intrinsic to you. Social media is just one example. Another one is the people you actually have around you. One of the most terrifying things to hear when you ask someone how they’re getting-on with an essay or with seminar reading is “Oh yeah, I’m almost done, I just need to make my final edits.” Again, your immediate reaction is to reassess your own work-rate, but this does nothing but cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. Something really important to take from University is an understanding of what makes you work at your best level. Looking to other people’s working routines, whilst it can be useful for finding inspiration, becomes a problem when you try to to mould yourself to it. Everyone works differently, and one of the best things to leave University with is a concrete knowledge of what makes you work best. Not just for your success in your field, but for your mental health- working to your own rythym is an important skill, and it should be a major focus for your time at University.
  2. Make your wellbeing your first prioritySo, you’ve come to University, and your main goal is to get that degree. What you don’t know is that over the next three or four years it’s incredibly likely that the importance of that goal will fluctuate- it will probably become a remote possibility at some points; at others it might feel like a complete drag, and sometimes it could inspire bursts of energy and motivation. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot more to University than the degree. Foremostly, it’ll probably be your first experience of living alone. Moving away from home, for me at-least, was terrifying, and I’d say I’m quite an autonomous person. Alongside your degree, you’ll have to learn how to live without the constant safety net your parents produce. You’ll have to learn how to shop for yourself, how to cook for yourself, how to manage bills and finances. The hardest part of all of that though, is learning how to cope with the feeling of knowing that you’ve flown from the nest. Coming home after your first term at University is a strange feeling, and for me it was deeply uncomfortable because it just felt so different, and it lost some of its special comfort it gave previously.

    To add to this pretty gruelling list, you’re going to have to take manage your own life if you’re going to get a degree. This means organising meetings, organising group sessions, meeting academic staff, organising when you’re going to do your work etc. The list goes on and on. There’s far far more to a degree than you initially think, and over time the trials and tribulations of living away from home, leading your own autonomous life with people you hardly know will exert a lot of pressure on you. So yeah, the main goal is to get a degree, but at the same time, you will have a lot on your plate. So, be kind to yourself. You are going through a major change in your life, and it’s not going to be easy all the time. Take time to focus on yourself, to assess where you’re at in your head, and how you’re coping with all these changes going-on around you. Always make sure that the things you do at University are for you. There’s that much going on all the time that it’s easy to get lost in it all, to just get on with it and forget about yourself, but eventually you’ll realise that something has gone wrong somewhere. To avoid this, I say make yourself your main priority at University. As changes whirl around in this chaotic bubble, always make sure to take time to slow everything down, and almost take a birds-eye view on what’s going-on in your mind. Take breaks as and when you need them, and do not be afraid to say no to your friends. True friends will understand that they get to enjoy you because you follow your own rhythym and that is what makes you you. So, another very important thing to bear in-mind is to make yourself your own priority. Do this, and the degree will slot-in alongside.

  3. Exercise
    Exercise, it’s everywhere! Half of your Facebook friends now have ‘PT’ at the end of their name, and almost everyone is walking around in gym gear. The pressure on people to be at the gym, striving to look like the chiseled model on the cover of Men’s Health, or the petite yet well-endowed Instagram model, is so high at the moment. So I think in some ways, exercise has become tainted. To go to the gym means you’re just following the trend, and such. There’s been such a strong backlash to the emergent culture of exercise, that it’s hard to locate some happy middle ground.

    Amidst all this hype around exercise, if you strip it all down barebones, exercise can still exert a therapeutic effect on you when you find the right kind of exercise for you. I’m a believer that there’s a form of exercise that suits everyone, be it running, lifting weights, playing hockey, whatever! This feeds into what I’ve just said about making yourself your own priority, because exercising can induce a meditative-like state, it can be immensely fun, it can relieve pent-up stress, and it can do a great job of bringing like-minded people together and allowing them to enjoy each other’s company. The point is, exercise is a versatile thing and it can be made to work to your advantage. You don’t have to run around in the latest gym leggings, or worry about how big your arms are. I think there’s something truly powerful about exercising, and it unlocks feelings that sitting-down just can’t quite achieve. Sometimes it could just bring some much-needed variety after a long day at the library. At the end of it all, though, exercising has a lot of uses. It doesn’t have to be about following the latest fads.

  4. Build healthy habits
    This is very much the mixing-together of everything I’ve already said. I can’t stress enough how important it is to stay-tuned to your own inner voice. For me the most important thing you can do is listen to this voice, and conduct yourself according to how you want to. When you combine all the things I’ve spoken about, you get into healthy habits. They’re healthy because they come from your genuine desires to help yourself. You may learn this at a point when you’ve gotten into friend groups that orientate around things that just aren’t your jam. It takes time to realise what your own inner voice is saying, and even longer to begin to act on it. But when it does become known to you, don’t be afraid to say no to people, or to let people go who don’t encourage you to live by the life you’ve decided to set-out for yourself. You should never be ashamed of living your life according to how you want to. To do so at University is a sign of great strength, because there’s a lot of forces pulling you in different directions and it’s easy to succumb to it all. You might begin to lose contact with people as you begin to do the things you really want to do, but that’s fine. When it’s all said and done and you’re on your deathbed, will they even be a memory? So put all these things together, and focus on what is best for you.
  5. Try to think that you are exactly where you need to be
    This is probably one of the hardest things to do, for anybody let alone a student. Many of us have plans for our lives, and most of us have expectations of ourselves, and these are constantly-changing as our lives go on. In our heads, there’s always worry of what you’ll be in the future, or what kind of a person you’ll be, or what kind of a person you currently are and if this person is good or desirable or whatever. We’re filled with self-doubt all the time, because we’re made to think always of where we are right now, and the end-goal; never the process in-between. There’s always deadlines to be met, obligations to be fulfilled, and the scale of it all is so huge that you’ll often just let it all get to you, and you’ll worry how on Earth you’re ever going to overcome it all and be the person you envisage in your head. When am I going to reach my end-point and really be my best self? When will I figure it all out? When will life get easier? Our heads are one constant rush at University and throughout life in-general, that we cannot possibly fathom to ask ourselves “Am I exactly where I need to be right now?”

    Face it, your deadlines are a long way away. Your Mum and Dad still don’t actually have a clue what’s going on in this myriad of bollocks we call life, and you are constrained by the person that you are now. It takes time to alter the chemistry of your mind, and to change the way you see and process things. Rather than worry about finding the answers to impossible questions about yourself, why not ask if you are actually exactly where you need to be? Maybe it’s okay to not have all the answers right now. It could be absolutely fine that you still don’t know who you are, what your tastes are, what kind of person you want to be. It’s also absolutely fine that your work isn’t done yet. I hate to repeat a cliche, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will you. You don’t have all the answers, you probably never will, and that’s absolutely fine. I am being serious as well when I say your parents still don’t have a clue what’s going on. I think the trick to mastering adulthood is making your children believe you know all the answers.

  6. Accept your flaws

    “You’re not perfect, sport, and let me save you the suspense: this girl you’ve met, she’s not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you’re perfect for each other.”- Sean McGuire

    You’d think I’m being the bearer of bad news to flat-out tell you you’re a flawed person, but I’m not. Flaws and imperfections, to once again quote from the wonderful film Good Will Hunting: they’re the good stuff. Blemishes, awkward laughs, flatulence, strange habits, the whole works. You’re a package deal, and you deserve to be loved entirely. But firstly, you have to learn to accept your flaws, and even embrace them. Your flaws are just as natural to you as your strengths, so why brush them under the carpet and pretend they aren’t there? I think what I’m trying to say is that honesty with yourself is quite an important thing. Be it acknowledging that you do not in-fact know how to win at the game of life, or be it bringing your imperfections into the light. Being honest with yourself about yourself is the first and most important step in beginning to accept yourself. It’s a hard thing to do when you have all these moulds you want yourself to fit into, but the truth is you might be incompatible with some of the ways you wish you were. I wish I were better at socialising, but I know my mental illness can make me go from happy and raring to go to absolute rock-bottom. I was ashamed for cancelling on people for so long, but why should I be ashamed about something I have no control over? That’s that process of being honest with yourself about yourself. See yourself as you are right now, and please be a bit kinder to yourself.

    I just want to finish by saying that this advice is written to help me just as much as it is to help you. I don’t embody most of this all of the time, and I’ve written these down partly as a reminder to myself of what I’m hoping to take from the very limited time I have left at University now. Right now I’m trying to be more honest with myself, and understand that the confusion I have about my life is fine, and there’s nothing I can really do about it. I’m not a wise sage who dispenses advice he actually lives-by, i’m an imperfect 3rd year student who makes a lot of mistakes and forgets to follow his own advice all the time, but that’s okay. You might finish reading this and think wow, what a waste of time, this doesn’t help me at all. That’s *sobbing* also fine. I just hope what I’ve written here gets you thinking about what’s right for you. At the end of the day, stay true to yourself, be kind to yourself, and embrace whatever happens along the way.

    Nick.